Tribune's Big Deal
The company's audacious experiment in integrating print, television and online expands enormously with the acquisition of Times Mirror.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
IT WAS SEPTEMBER 1997, and Mark H. Willes, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was talking to editors about the paper's future. In the previous two years as CEO of parent Times Mirror, Willes had cut loose the company's cable television stations, killed off New York Newsday and sold other assets. At this meeting, an editor with the paper's Web group asked Willes about his commitment to the Internet.
Willes' answer was straightforward: He had none. The paper would continue to dabble in Internet-related businesses, but Willes saw no real future for newspapers in the online world. Instead, his company must focus strictly on its core newspaper business, good old ink-on-paper. It's where money could be made, and if the right steps were taken, circulation would swell.
No, the Internet was not the way to go. "I really don't believe in giving content away for nothing," Willes told Terry Schwadron, then a Times assistant managing editor, and others at that meeting, "and besides, this whole Internet business is a fad."
Willes, then 54, had been dismissing new-media ventures since assuming command at Times Mirror in 1995. That was also the year John W. Madigan, then 58, became CEO of Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago Tribune and other media properties. Madigan, though, had a radically different vision for the future. Newspapers may be the soul of the business, but he and other Tribune executives believed it was critical to embrace new technologies, to partner with the company's extensive television holdings, to develop bold new ways of distributing news.
By fall 1997, the Tribune Co. was deeply committed to the Internet, as well as to the notion of having its newspapers work closely with broadcast and cable television in places where Tribune owned both. While Willes was shrugging off the Internet and shedding cable TV interests, the Tribune Co. was teaming up with Time Warner Cable to launch a cable station in Orlando, leveraging the newsgathering operation of the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel.
It may not have been apparent to Willes in 1997 as the new-media landscape was taking shape, but it's a widespread belief now: Newspapers, most with declining circulation, are not going to prosper in isolation. Tribune executives were far ahead of other media companies in understanding how technology was quickly changing ways people get their news.
They saw a future fraught with fragmentation. No longer were people clinging loyally to one particular medium for their news. The Tribune Co. decided to break out of the traditional mold and do news differently. "In the past, we found good journalism, and we would give it to the newspaper," says Mark Hinojosa, assistant managing editor for electronic news and the highest-ranking multimedia editor in the Tribune newsroom. "But now we want to take what we do and deliver it in different ways. If we want to reach the largest possible audience, we may have to try publishing on multiple channels."
The Tribune Co. has led the way in experimenting with convergence on a grand scale. And its footprint is about to grow dramatically. In March, Tribune scooped up Times Mirror, whose holdings include such prominent newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. The deal to sell Times Mirror for $8 billion in stock, cash and debt was executed behind Willes' back by the Chandler family-dominated Times Mirror board.
Early on, Tribune execs grasped the Internet's power to effect change. What they saw in Times Mirror was an extremely attractive opportunity to buy newspapers in Los Angeles, New York and Hartford, cities where Tribune already owns television stations.
While companies are generally not permitted to own newspapers and broadcast TV stations in the same market, there are at least 14 exceptions, if you include the three where Tribune owns TV stations and Times Mirror has papers. The first of those three TV licenses isn't up for renewal until 2005, by which time some observers think the rule prohibiting cross-ownership will be history.
Tribune's strategy is to re-create in some fashion its multimedia models in Chicago and Orlando, finding multiple uses for content. The long-term approach is to create a network of regional media hubs in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York that will be irresistible to national advertisers.
Since investing $5 million in America Online in 1991, the Tribune Co. has been moving swiftly, often quietly, toward becoming a national multimedia operation poised to distribute its news content via print, television, Internet, radio, cable and broadband. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "no media company has been more aggressive about reaping the rewards of owning multiple outlets in a single city."
Sounds like the Tribune Co. "got it" far earlier than most.
"I don't know if we 'get it' still," counters Jack Fuller, president of the company's publishing unit. "Honestly, this is a radically changing environment, and we are not foolish enough to say we 'get it.' What we did get was that you had to build a culture of change and then figure out what's constant. What's constant is good journalism. We are trying to build a culture where we are constantly learning and constantly experimenting, because we now know it's evolve or die."
When the deal is completed this summer, Tribune Co. will own 11 newspapers with a combined circulation of 3.6 million; 22 broadcast TV stations reaching 27 percent of the country; four radio stations; and Web sites with 3.4 million unique visitors a month. The chain will catapult to third place in newspaper circulation, behind Gannett (6.6 million with 74 papers) and Knight Ridder (4 million with 31 papers). The combined company will operate in 18 of the nation's top 30 markets. With that kind of power, analysts and Tribune executives alike believe it can drive traffic to beef up its money-losing Internet ventures.
In other words, it will be capital B big. And in the fledgling Internet world, where every media company is flailing about in an effort to get a toehold, big is considered key. Big means being able to offer a large "platform" to deliver news, sports, entertainment, weather and information. Big provides the company with eyeballs for advertisers, prestige for potential partners, cachet for audiences attracted by the Tribune brand name.
But the latest media megamerger is about more than size. What's different is Tribune thinking on how to deliver news, how to formulate stories. "We have all the pieces on the table," says Hinojosa, who refers to himself as newsroom cyberspace ambassador. "The idea now is to conceive the stories from the beginning based on how you will distribute them. This is all very theoretical. Nobody, including us, is really doing it. But the theory is we'll look at every story idea and try to figure out what are the best ways to use it."
What distinguishes the company's approach to the future is the idea of taking newspaper content and using it to produce segments for television or the radio or the Web. "It's fairly common to have newspaper-television alliances," says John Owens, whose job is to look for ways to adapt Tribune stories to other media owned by the company. "But from what I've seen, it's limited to sharing information. We will go the extra step to produce a segment for television from the newspaper, rather than just verbally sharing."
If the Chicago Tribune has a great story, why not deliver it on CLTV, the Tribune-owned cable news station as well? Why not create stories from the Tribune that could air on WGN radio or WGN-TV, which doubles as a cable superstation, and reach a larger audience than the paper's 632,000 subscribers? Doesn't it make sense, say Tribune advocates, that after months of work, a newspaper project should also appear in another medium, rather than have only a one-day run and be archived? And that doesn't mean simply shoveling the text version onto the Web site.
"It's very important to get the story in front of as many people as possible," says David Underhill, Tribune's vice president of intergroup development. "To me, that was an epiphany in 1995, when I was visiting the Tribune's Washington, D.C., bureau and asked a print reporter why he enjoys working with electronic media. He said, 'I do it for the story.' That's why he was excited to work in both mediums. It was a benefit to readers, and the story gets out to many, many more people. That just went 'click' to me."
Naturally, there are critics who fear the company is trying to do too much with its resources, that it will dilute or homogenize the news product. They fear the company will stretch its employees to a point that will hurt its journalism. They worry that along with reporting, journalists will also be taking up marketing's job of promotion. They predict that the company's commitment to 30 percent profit margins means it will skimp on news. And much to its leaders' chagrin, its flagship Tribune is rarely cited as one of the nation's very best newspapers, while the L.A. Times, despite its recent tumult, is always on such a list.
The company counters that it is possible to do quality journalism and still make a generous profit if the commitment is there and the company is run well, and the Tribune Co. is considered by industry analysts to be one of the best-managed media companies in the country. Its brand of journalism can't be that bad, say Tribune editors: The Chicago Tribune was a Pulitzer finalist this year in two categories, while its sister paper, the Orlando Sentinel, won a coveted Pulitzer for editorial writing.
"We are sick of reading condescending stuff about the Tribune Co.," says Chicago Tribune Editor Howard A. Tyner. "The truth is, we haven't diverted resources.... My feeling is that, with a few exceptions, the old formulas applied to newspapers have not worked very well. My sense is the dinosaurs think we are cheapening journalism and sneer at the notion of using a multimedia approach, and then think they are able to justify their criticism by saying it's all done for the bottom line. It isn't. I'd rather work for a company that is not just willing to talk about the future but is willing to spend money to figure out what it may be."
Who's right? The answer is likely to emerge as journalism, Tribune-style, comes to the L.A. Times and Times Mirror's other excellent newspapers. The results won't go unnoticed.
IT WAS CHARLES BRUMBACH, the former head of Tribune Co., who set the company on its current path (see "Synergy City,"). Brumbach, who retired in 1995, sensed that things were about to change, big time, in the media world. An early tech enthusiast who jumped online before virtually anyone in a newsroom even knew what online meant, Brumbach imparted a sense of a dawning technology boom in the early 1990s. He felt certain computer services would play a huge role in the future of news. Madigan, Fuller and others ran with it.
When Mike Silver, now vice president/new media of Tribune Broadcasting, encouraged the company to invest in America Online in 1991, it did so, believing that eventually many people would get information from computers. Tribune began investing in other high-tech companies, such as Excite@home and the Food Network. Madigan calls these investments the company's version of research and development.
The Internet intrigued company executives, but no one quite knew how to make it work commercially. They saw technology inexorably changing the media environment, providing new ways to get information via cable television as well as the World Wide Web. As that happened, corporate thinking inside the gothic Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue began to evolve. Since the company owned all these different forms of media, often in the same city, shouldn't there be some kind of synergy?
"The idea was, we have all these properties that produce stuff," Tyner says. "Shouldn't we be working together? Madigan, to his credit, was also willing to take chances on the Web to learn, even though he knew we were losing money. We lost a ton of money on the Web." (Tribune Co. has lost $30 million a year for the past three years on its online efforts.)
By 1992, the Tribune was running Chicago Online with AOL and working on creating its own all-news cable TV station, ChicagoLand TV. But that was early in the age of convergence. "I remember very clearly in 1992 setting up a seminar for people in the newsroom to learn about the online world," Tyner says. "Virtually no one showed up. We had two computers with an AOL hookup in the newsroom. Nobody used them. I remember someone saying, 'This stuff isn't relevant to my job.' "
The Tribune newspaper, founded in 1847, bought Chicago's WGN-AM radio in 1924 and WGN-TV in 1948 under the guidance of Col. Robert McCormick. "Radio and television didn't work together at all, even though they share the same call letters," says Tom Garritano, the Tribune's manager of intergroup operations. "It gets back to the silo thinking. WGN-TV is a successful operation. They've been doing it for 50 years plus. WGN radio has been around a lot longer and is unusually successful. So there was no motivation to go out of their comfort zone."
There was no motivation until Madigan and others decided sharing and working together was a smart thing to do. Clearly the model for newspapers wasn't the entire answer, as management watched circulation drop.
"The launching of online operations in the newsroom created the sense of focusing on publishing electronically," Underhill says. "Launching CLTV was the second big building block, and those two things were done between 1990 and 1993. That was really a major turning point for Tribune as it began to look at the future and think about publishing on different channels."
The concept might have been good, but it would take many years before the various Chicago properties would start working together. Even today, there are lingering pockets of resistance to true collaboration.
Chicago happens to be an ideal laboratory for the Tribune Co.'s experiment, because it owns a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper there. "I love newspapers and would be shattered were they to go away, but increasingly it seems to me that it's important to look upon our business as one that generates news content," Tyner says. "We need to figure out how to deliver that information and advertising in a way that people want. It may turn out that the newspaper down the road gets stronger in a highly fragmented world of information and that the newspaper will be the place people go. Why shouldn't it be the newspaper that makes sense of it all?"
The corporate desire for synergy became apparent when CLTV debuted in 1993. Its main studio is located in Oak Brook, sharing quarters with a Tribune suburban bureau. The advent of CLTV was accompanied by the arrival of a television camera in the ink-stained newsroom. While not so unusual today, a TV camera in a newsroom in 1993 was like an elephant in a museum. Awkward. Frightening. Distracting. And a nuisance.
At the Tribune's main newsroom, the multimedia experiment started with a lone camera in a cubicle in front of Tyner's office. It was intentionally positioned there to reinforce the message: The camera was not a passing fad. Management backed the idea, and reporters and editors had better get used to it.
"The big thing CLTV had going for it was the relationship with the newspaper and access to all the Tribune Co.'s resources," Garritano says. At first, few Chicago Tribune reporters wanted to appear on air. Nor were they eager to share their reporting with Tribune-owned WGN and CLTV.
In 1995, Tribune Co.'s Washington, D.C., broadcast and print bureaus merged to form Tribune Media Center.
By 1996, says Underhill, the company was committed to a marriage of print and television to create and expand its interactive products. It saw broadband coming and knew that broadband's ability to make high-speed Internet access as common as telephone hookups would further change the news business. Underhill says "broadband was one of the reasons that we also started doing external partnerships" with other television and radio stations and media giants such as Time Warner.
In Orlando, a 50-50 partnership with Time Warner Cable created Central Florida News13 in October 1997. Keith Wheeler, a former TV news director, was hired by the Orlando Sentinel to create stories for the cable station and to train print reporters to think television.
"My biggest job when I first started was doing PR," Wheeler says. "So there was less a feeling of them vs. us between television and print reporters. If you talked to me two years ago, I would have complained about how frustrating it was, because newspaper and television people never saw eye to eye. Television people thought the newspaper people were stuffy. And print people thought television people were superficial."
Sentinel reporters began sharing stories on television by doing "talk-backs," in which a reporter discussed a story on camera. Now, Wheeler has a six-person staff in the Sentinel newsroom--a videographer, two producers, an editor, a graphic artist and a production manager. The videographer might shoot for the Web or for cable, depending on the story.
CFN13's strongest assets are the Sentinel staff and the paper's commitment to sharing content. "The television station may have 12 reporters," says Wheeler, "but it also has a 300-person newspaper behind that. Most affiliate television stations don't have the resources to cover courts. We can, because of the Sentinel staff."
Synergy has its rewards. In 1998, the Florida Associated Press broadcast arm gave second place in the best short feature category to CFN13 for a piece on a camp for African American boys. The story was originally written for the newspaper.
oday, three hefty television cameras sit on an elevated 24-by-26-foot stage in the middle of the Tribune's newsroom, sandwiched between the sports and photo departments. The elephant is no longer a nuisance nor even a distraction inside the nation's seventh largest newspaper. It just is. No one seems to mind the formidable high-tech digital video and audio equipment and robotic cameras. Or the anchor desk, or the corner where a Tribune reporter (after applying a little makeup) can talk via camera to a television journalist at another location.
"It was built with technological flexibility in mind," says Mitch Locin, a former Tribune White House correspondent and now a liaison between the paper and Tribune electronic outlets in Chicago. "The systems can be controlled here or at the station. There's lots of unused circuitry, because we don't know the technology of the future, but we definitely anticipate bringing in new technology. That's what we are all about. Twenty years from now, who knows how all this will work? But we'll be ready with all platforms."
Off in the interactive wing, down the hall from the newsroom, is a master control room loaded with sophisticated digital editing bays, production equipment and a digital video storage unit for Tribune electronic outlets to dip into at any time. "The newsroom of the future is here now," Locin says.
The Tribune's multimedia effort is coordinated by a nine-person unit launched in 1993 and last year dubbed "intergroup." Its main function: to serve as a link to the company's electronic news outlets.
Locin, a Tribune reporter for 25 years, is now senior electronic news editor. Titles in this new-media world are definitely tricky and apt to change frequently, and they tend to require explanation. John Owens delayed having business cards printed to give himself time to formulate a title for his role as a hands-on liaison between the paper and other units. He finally settled on "news editor for intergroup."
Locin's role is point person for TV, radio and interactive staffers, functioning as their link to the newspaper. "My job is to share content and create content for TV, radio, Internet and broadband," says Locin, who is always on alert for Tribune stories that could be "repurposed" for sister Chicago operations.
When not calling radio or television assignment desks, Locin also shepherds foreign and U.S. journalists and other visitors touring the Tribune's state-of-the-art newsroom. Last year, the paper hosted 100 visits by those curious to see the redesigned newsroom and learn how synergy might work. But there's a payback. Those involved in the multimedia efforts are invited to speak in interesting locales: Locin's been to Jamaica, Tyner to Germany, Garritano to Lisbon, Tribune Managing Editor Ann Marie Lipinski to London.
Locin also helps reporters manage their time, so they aren't overwhelmed by writing for the Web, appearing on TV or turning out a front-page story. No Tribune Co. journalist, say Fuller and Tyner, is expected to do everything, and each has the right to refuse to do a story outside his or her primary medium. "It's every reporter's nightmare that they are going to be out there with a battery pack on their back, a satellite dish on top, a digital camera in one hand, a microphone in the other and dictating a story," Tyner says. "That's ludicrous."
To achieve quality journalism, the company will still need journalists with strong broadcast skills and strong writing skills and strong Web skills. But over time, Tyner predicts, there will be a growing number who will shift comfortably among all three mediums.
Columnist Bill Barnhart, who writes about the stock market, has smoothly made the transition. Every weekday at 4:30 p.m., Barnhart wanders over to the newsroom stage, clips on a microphone and talks for about 10 minutes about the NASDAQ or the dotcom of the day. It's no big deal for Barnhart, although he initially worried about being away from his phone at the time of day when calls are often returned.
"Since the markets are open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. [CST], my job is highly regimented," says Barnhart. "It's easier for me to perform this function than anybody else on the staff. I get annoyed when people think I'm the poster boy for synergy. I do it regularly because I can. If I changed my assignment and was doing investigative projects, I'd tell these people to 'Blow it,' and they would."
THE INTERGROUP'S JOHN OWENS' job description sounds a little like that of an air traffic controller. Owens, a former assignment editor for CLTV, sits at the Metro Desk and attends the page-one meeting at 4 p.m. Afterwards, he'll put together an e-mail for assignment editors at the Chicago television and radio properties, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and WPIX-TV in New York City, filling them in on the Trib's plans. Sometimes, if the Tribune has a hot story and it can't be easily copied by competitors, Owens will feed it to WGN-TV or radio or CLTV to air the night before it's in the newspaper to give it extra bounce and enhance the stations' coverage. ###
But not always. On April 4, the Tribune unearthed a scoop concerning the unsolved 1993 murders of seven workers at Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine, a suburb northwest of Chicago. Police were taking DNA samples seven years later from four suspects, signaling new activity in the case. "This is a story other stations would leap on," Owens says. Should it be released to other Tribune properties, including the Web site, before it's published in the paper?
This time, the story remained a print exclusive. Metro Editor Hanke Gratteau made the call. How quickly a rival news outlet could catch up on the story often dictates whether exclusives will be held. In this case, Arlington Heights' Daily Herald, which covers Palatine, might be able to match the piece. But Owens did videotape an interview on the newsroom TV stage with Eric Ferkenhoff, one of the Tribune reporters who broke the DNA story.
"I then sent the newspaper story to WGN and CLTV with instructions to not air the story and interview until the morning it appeared in the paper," Owens says. "CLTV led with the story in the 5 a.m. newscast and continued to lead with the story for the remainder of the day. Because they couldn't get any law enforcement officials to talk further about the story, their main sound bite element in their news packages was pulled from the Ferkenhoff interview I did. WGN-TV led with the story at noon, and also used the Ferkenhoff interview. WGN-AM used the story as well."
That is the synergy model that will be loosely superimposed on Times Mirror papers and Tribune broadcasting properties in former Times Mirror cities. But there is no detailed road map the new papers will be expected to follow. "The strategy is consistent, but the tactics are different for each market," Tyner says. "The strategy is to extend your content and brands across the spectrum of delivery mediums. The tactics will vary depending on who you are working with and where you are."
Tyner and other Tribune officials refuse to discuss future plans until the deal is sealed this summer. Rumors are flying about the fate of the Los Angeles Times' 54-person Washington bureau. Will Tribune Co. merge the four separate Times Mirror bureaus belonging to the Times, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant? This is just one of a myriad of questions reverberating through Times Mirror newsrooms.
As the Tribune Publishing Co.'s vice president of editorial, Tyner will be involved in the transition. But he doesn't plan to inject himself into the editing process at the Los Angeles Times or the Baltimore Sun. "My role is to figure out ways the editors can work together. We can learn a great deal from Times Mirror papers," says Tyner. "I don't know how to allay their fears. What I tell people at the Los Angeles Times is, I refuse to accept their congratulations about the merger. The implication is we should be congratulated for winning and that something was lost. I don't see the Tribune as victor. Times Mirror has great newspapers with many, many great features. It's a question of people of good will sitting down together and saying: 'How can we work together?' "
Dave Underhill will also be involved in bringing Times Mirror properties into the fold. "This is not a cookie-cutter world," he says. "We are going to work with print, Internet and television teams in each new market to find the best thing for that market. It's really going to be a customized local market discussion. It's definitely not: 'Here's the template. Go follow it.' We'll take the things we've learned and work with the local teams to find the best practices. Some of it will be based on what we've done elsewhere, some on what we learn from them."
One thing that has become clear is that each market has to have a Mitch Locin or a Keith Wheeler whose exclusive job is to look for ways to share content and ideas and make them happen.
"We found out the whole relationship building among the units can't be emphasized enough," says Garritano, the Tribune's intergroup operations manager. "Everybody knows the concept of taking content from the newspaper to TV. But you have to have one person focused on it. Otherwise, nothing will happen."
By no means is synergy yet working perfectly in Chicago. Each medium still operates separate newsrooms. "We've not yet asked WGN radio to do updates for the Internet," Locin says. And some print reporters spurn requests to write for the Web. Nor do all still photographers want to also shoot digital video while on assignments.
And not everyone is a believer. "It would be foolish of me to say there is overwhelming endorsement in the newsroom for all this stuff," Tyner says. "There isn't. Half have no opinion, because it doesn't affect them. There's, I'm sure, a small group that says, 'It's all stupid.' Then there's a group that says, 'This is all cool.' "
In reality, the emphasis now is more on different ways of disseminating news than about joint reporting or collaborating on the best way to pursue a story. As it evolves, those coordinating various mediums envision moving beyond "repurposing" the newspaper to what's called "prepurposing."
Orlando Sentinel Editor John Haile and his editors share that vision. Ideally, a print reporter will go out on a story and think ahead of time how it might work for television, "as opposed to thinking after the story is written, 'Oh gosh, now I gotta do television,' " says Wheeler, the Sentinel's deputy managing editor for multimedia.
"The idea really is to conceive a story from the beginning based on how you will distribute it," says Hinojosa, a self-professed tech weenie and the Tribune's former assistant managing editor for photography. "If you can look at a story and see it fits our broadcast model, then maybe the shooter I send will be able to do a small photo for the newspaper. This is the kind of thing I know will happen."
While Col. McCormick was considered technologically advanced when he added a radio and television station to the mix before 1950, one wonders if he ever envisioned them all working closely together. What would he think if he could return for a day to Tribune Tower and descend down under Michigan Avenue to the bowels of the building where his printing presses once clanked and clattered? Would it sadden him to see that the presses are gone? Not far though---only a mile and a half west at the Freedom Center. Instead, where the presses once stood, McCormick would come upon the new home for the expanding Tribune interactive division.
"It would be a delicious moment for Robert McCormick," Tyner says. "It's not like the presses were thrown out. But the original place where they stood is now being fitted out for the future."